tv Public History and Museum Exhibits CSPAN April 19, 2017 5:33am-6:51am EDT
broadway musical "hamilton" it is live wednesday at 10:30 a.m. eastern on c-span 2. and you can also watch the opening ceremony of the american revolution museum wednesday night at 8:00 eastern here on c-span3. >> c-span where history unfolds daily. in 1979, c-span was created by mer america's television companies and is brought to you today by your cable or satellite provider. discusses his lifelong interest in meems and historic sites with the brooklyn historical society president. he helped develop programs and
exhibits all over the united states. his book is "curating america." he is also the author of the book that we're going to be more focused on tonight which is for sale in our shop. and richard has very kindly offered to sign copies of the book after we talk this evening. the book is called "curating america." it is a beautifully written book. i had such fun preparing for this evening because it is a perfect combination of you as an
incredible collar with an enormous amount of academic background and deeply personal and funny and warm. so i urge you all to have a look at it. what we're going to do is talking for about 40 minutes and open it up to questions from all of you. so i think richard is going to start us off by reading a few paragraphs from the book. >> this sunday 29 will be the 50th anniversary of a trip i took as a disgruntled, tired, bored graduate student in history. i went out to an outdoor history museum in central massachusetts called old sturbridge village. some of you have been there.
it was a day like today, but 30 degrees colder. instead of rain, it was a lot of snow. i pretty much had the whole museum to myself that day. i walk around and told the story. it was kind of a revelation. i was in graduate school discovering new england history. i was shocked at my ignorance. i had no idea what the people i have been studying for years looked like or where they lived or how they carried them around. i went home that night and couldn't sleep and i got up the next morning and decided i got to do something else. i drove back out there and got myself a job for 1.10 dollars an hour. i have a couple people in the
audience that work for me. i always told that story. i worked as one of those costume interpreters with a funny hat. and i fell in love with the idea of meeting visitors and talking history and it still sort of the passion of my life is telling those stories. so i thought i'd read a little bit of what happened to me at sturbridge. at professional gatherings, museum workers remark on passing through the marble floors at night, and the dim lamps barely catches the glint of a bronze sculpture. you can see the appeal of the "night at the museum" movies when the old precious objects, come alive. sturbridge was never like that.
even before opening hours the place was alive with weather, with light and shadow and with bird song and animal calls. as the costumed interprets took their places it was something new to notice how difficult people looked as they crossed the village common in their winter capes. how a dry april affected the gardens and how the ice melted in the morning sun. being outdoors in historical environment generated new angles of vision, new phenomena to see, and a new life pattern to explain. opening myself to the sensuality of the past i kept discovering how time and space and light and color and stillness and sound mattered. the touchable past by its nature abolished an arbitrary boundary between the historical and contemporary. in my university classes,
everything we knew about the past, including its persistence into the present, had to be attributed to some kind of footnote. a source was called for. and these sources are still resigned in the archives or cooked concoctions of well reputed scholars. the outdoor museum hinted at a different truth that our forebears and we share a complex commonalty of sensory motor engagement with the universe around us. in this way, accessing the touchable past vastly widened and deepened what i could consider to be historical fen that, words spoken as well as written, stuff that was made, used, discarded or preserved, the ambience of human life and its daily, seasonal and annual rhythms. tactility brought me closer to the everyday past. that was the impulse of that
experience, kind of experience that feeling that the past was still accessible to us, and the kind of -- and the feeling that we had that we could really still hear the sounds of the morning and of the bird song in the morning and we could feel the way in which the ground under our feet gave way in that kind of -- in that time. it was a transformative experience for me. when i went to teach there, i realized that -- for example, i was a schoolmaster. sort of a school master. and my visitors would come in and they would slide into these old desks and you know, there was no artificial light in the room. i would get out copies of a textbook, a 19th century textbook. people would hold it up and try to catch the light. they would also feel the smell of the room and the kind of way
in which if you didn't get the right answer you might sort of shrink behind somebody to not be called on again. and people began to talk back to me as an interpreter. although they may have once been silenced in class, in the museum they were filled with words. and so i realized that the museum was also a place where people would talk back, where i could hear the visitor, where i could really understand their experience of history as well. those experiences of understanding how much their history was around us in everything, in every way we looked and walked down the street. in a neighborhood like this, every building is a testament to a whole set of historical actions and decisions and things like that and also the way in which in a museum we could teach by putting people into situations where their basic human skills, the nothing that
they brought, the experience that they had as children, suddenly, they could talk back to you. they could tell you things they themselves were part of the story we were telling. that was a kind of -- that's really the kind of transformation that coming into these field a half century ago -- god, that's amazing. it was just after my bar mitzvah. so i wasn't that old. anyway. >> richard, as you talk about this, i can't help but tie this to some of the issues we were all thinking about in the present day. we are accused occasionally in new york of living in a bubble. and you've tone work all over the country and you've thought about this issue of place-based history and i'm wondering if you
have some particular moments or examples of being in a very different place than eertither england, where you studied deeply or new york, where you grew up, better striking examples of what you learned, that were striking examples of what you learned because they were in that context? >> that is a good question. we worked in 34 states. it is always a question of walking, finding someone to take a walk with in a salmon cannery in puget sound. to walk with a filipino cannery worker and have him explain the work, the dangers of the work, the family stories, the way -- and then, i would be able to ask questions and i would be able to bring to him a kind of conversation, you know -- let me tell you what i think this might
have been like 75 or 100 years ago and we would have these kfgs about that or walking along a rice field in a day like today in january in south carolina when you're in the rice fields and you're walk with somebody -- i did not know the history of all these places. the pleasure i had was to meet people that had deep roots. for a new yorker, it is surprising to learn it is january that is the real -- not august -- that is the real horror of the rice field if you are a 17th or 18th century enslaved person who has to walk through that cold water and pull up the weeds around the rice plants. and to understand that slavery is not an abstraction.
it's not an economic phenomenon entirely. it's a human dilemma. it's a human crisis. i would sit there and try to say, what did it feel like with the cold? how did people talk to each other? then immediately you start to think the africans who were there came from so many different places. africa is a much more heterogeneous linguistically than europe, so you might have six or seven different indigenous languages. when people came to south carolina, they had to find a way to talk to each other and construct a language. the language that emerged in that culture. learning that with a rootedness in the place really became tremendously important. in the 1970's and 1980's, a lot
of the work we were doing was coming out of the fact that a lot of the american industrial towns in the northeast and midwest of course, deindustrializing. we have heard a lot about white working class times. it was clear that a whole architectural heritage of our industrial age was threatened. there was no longer an economic use for a lot of those mill towns. we got hired to figure out what to do with those places. we constructed programs in new york and massachusetts and ohio and pennsylvania to create heritage parks. and in every case, it was a matter of locating the memories of people from that place and trying to find, what was the investment that they had in a place? capitalism is a great powerful energy.
it has the power to take a company, a steel mill or a cotton mill and move it 8,000 miles in one month, right? relocate. but it leaves behind an enormous investment of a community. we see this happening. and so in a lot of ways the work of the public historian and those of you who are here, is to try to figure out how to treasure what that investment is and to try to find a way to preserve that and to not to allow it to become simply a fungible something that gets tossed into the ash heap because the factory is gone. what to do with those churches and synagogues, the stories, all the commercial districts left behind that need to be repurposed and reconstructed as sites for a new civilization. that often means bringing in a
new immigrant population. this is an amazing country because we have this churning in our lives. we are no longer a young country. we are no longer a place where things are first generation. they have many generations layered on the land here. all of us who work in this field have to take this sense that our job is to argue for those multiple layers, right? not just to say that a developer, i hope i'm not offending anybody here, that the developer can come in and simplify this place by describing it as some place that's totally new. right? that's a kind of mistake that i think. our job is working to restore the idea that the brooklyn waterfront -- it wasn't ornamental or a park space.
it was a working waterfront that was traditionally important. this was one of the great ports in the united states. there is a whole history in the brooklyn historical society's role in just remembering that, recapturing that. that of course also means that in recapturing the water front you are also dig fieing the lives of people who for years made a living sometimes dying on those places. it was a hard life. and those people get bypassed so often in our telling of the history. >> we have a wonderful story. our director of public history, who i don't think is with us tonight, but who was driving the project at the waterfront -- she and her team discovered an obituary of a laborer who worked in the empire stores, lifting
bags of goods, and who, starting with the obituary, because this man was killed by a bag of seeds that fell on his head, work backwards and learned about him. where he worked, how long he worked there, what he made, where his wife was, where they lived in dumb bow and what his situation was and out of what his situation was came this full-blown story. >> i think the point is that all of us have full-blown stories, and it history is reduced. sometimes social historians like me reduce it to statistical measures. we talk about the average life expectancy or income per year but the real pleasure of this history is to reconstruct the lives -- the full lives. to understand that men and women in the past had a view of
nature. they had a view. they were fiphilosophical about things. they had long family lives. it is easy to simplify and reduce people to statistics. i think our job, to find the human stories everywhere, just as a way of seeing ourselves as connected with that great chain is very important. >> so this is -- i'm allowing myself one slightly nerdy museum question, which has to do of course with the juxtaposition of story telling to objects. and the stuff that -- as you call it -- that many museums are made of. which is to say, we often start out and continue to be collections of objects,
sometimes artifacts. in art museums, it is a more obvious relationship. but in history museums the truth is our attics or slightly upgraded storage spaces are full of these objects. and i would love to hear you talk a little bit about your relationship to those objects and what you've come to understand about them. >> you know, i was not a museum rat as a kid. we didn't collect spoons and we should schlepp up to the museum of the city of new york and the museum of natural history every year from east new york. i never thought of myself as a museum -- particularly interested in that. i didn't come from a family that were really collectors.
then i began to realize within the object, just as a teacher, as i was saying about the schoolhouse, for me as a teacher to give you an object to hold in your hand and to allow you to have a bodily relationship to that object, i've got two absolutely brilliant and beautiful grandchildren. i could show you pictures. and i'm having the pleasure again as a grandparent to watch the way in which the cognitive process of a toddler -- it's so much of what is learned is just by this physical process of learning how to manipulate. that's why i use the term sensory motor engagement. it's a big fancy term. but it's not just the physicality of the object.
when a child put something on top, the develop an idea of the metaphor, the top is the good thing, but the thing on the top is good. they will say tomorrow we are going to have a big experience, we are going to top it off with something. so they begin to develop a sense of language of metaphor that comes out of that physical experience. so for me as a student of history, it's -- it's really -- and i think it all came down to the fact that my mother -- who died last year -- she was in the middle of her 100th year, was a woman who came to new york and to brooklyn from poland. she had very little schooling. she was the most intelligent person that i have met. her intelligence was all in her fingertips and she had an amazing kind of wisdom.
if she dealt with anything in the physical world especially with food she had a sensitivity to the story of that object. she wouldn't buy green beans at the public market in deerfield beach without sort of understanding how -- was it fresh? what was she going to do where it tonight? what was she going to do with it tomorrow? she had a storytelling ability about every thing. nothing spoiled in her refrigerator, to say the least. it took me many years to realize as i used to say, i had to get a harvard ph.d. to figure out how my mother made an apple pie. that was a kind of revenge. i felt that a lot of my teachers and a lot of my colleagues really were focusing only on the way in which history was captured in documents and texts.
i really wanted to value the kind of knowledge that was in lifting, hoisting, you know, these bags of coffee and sugar that were coming into the brooklyn water front was not just brawn. there was a tremendous amount of skill involved in that and danger involved in that. so for me, you know, objects are immediately generate a kind of story. i mean, linda and i went to paris to do -- somebody had to do it -- we went to paris to do some research for an exhibition we were doing on the haitian revolution at the new york historical society and i found a letter in the archives of the defense department which was a letter from napoleon to -- the actual letter. he says "no honor is greater for
you to be a citizen of the great french republic, right? and by the way i'm sending my brother-in-law to take over the power in the island and you will be sub ordinate to him. immediately after that he writes a letter to his brother and thought and says, i want you to get in and master his soul, and insinuate yourself and twist him to our win. this guy is a son of a bitch. he signs a big "b" for bonaparte. you just think, man, the physicality of that letter is just something that you can't substitute. you could read that letter and it has been quoted in more history books, sure. but it is one thing to read the text, nice times new roman in a textbook, but when you see the thing physically and really feel it, you can feel the hate coming
in that particular moment and you know, of course that he's sitting there in the palace and he's got this kind of quill and he's got this kind of inkwell and the paper has been made. you dig deep and find the whole story. what is he doing? how is he managing this kind of thing? and you can really take it and your imagination is just set on fire by that kind of stuff. >> great. you are a storyteller at heart. here's one of the things that i'm very struck by whenever i talk to you. your command of historical knowledge is extraordinary. but you have the soul of an educator. and that is essentially what i i've seen that you kind of combine. >> and which we share.
>> which we share. >> right. >> that's where -- from whence i come as well. >> right. >> before i came to brooklyn historical society i ran the education department at the museum of modern art and before that at the brooklyn museum. so it's in my heart as well. >> right. >> but one of the things that you are eloquent about in the book and which i think then manifests itself in the exhibits that you create is not just a passion but an understanding of educational philosophy. you have studied the great educators. you have studied john dewey. and you work with that constantly. i wonder if you could talk a little bit about where that came, how you came upon that, and how you have maintained it in your practice? >> well -- first moment you
know, you have these experiences. so i was reading in -- in college i was reading wordsworth's long wonderful poem "a prelude." tries to capture the experience of a small child. i think the adventure of how the human mind grasps onto something in the world is the most wonderful miraculous thing that could ever be discovered, could ever be discovered or looked at. i just became so interested. if you could slow that down, what actually happens biologically and intellectually and physically? because it's all those things that are happening to us as we engage the world, as we pick something up. and you know, we just -- we feel the sense of the need for balance.
my arm moves out here. i'm already conducting a physics experiment of considerable sophistication and i don't know it. of course i don't know any of those words about what to call it until i'm much older. so to me, the museum slows down at its best the kind of engagement with something that is really alien and foreign and not part of our world. even things that seem to be familiar to us. if you go to a tenement museum where i've done a lot of work and you see an apartment. we are new yorkers, we have been in that kind of space. but something is different. the way the wallpaper is set, the way that a chair sits and you begin to become -- to be frankly -- i got very excited by my own process of learning, but especially by the way in which i
could work with a group of kids. at sturbridge, i had this very lucky thing. i was the head of the baby boom generation by 10 minutes. so there was the -- there was a good job open while we were waiting for the rest of the baby boomers to finish college. i had this experience first day i was the education director. i brought a group of kids in. agave them a recipe for making rice cakes and they were from springfield, new jersey anded they been on a bus for hours to come to sturbridge. and i zexeroxed this recipe and gave it to the children. i said, we are going to make rice cakes today. one child said, we need a pound of rice. the list? a third child said there's a natural here and let's go up here and they went up to the farm and say, okay, you know,
mr. freeman, you know, can we have a poundch rice and mr. freeman said this is massachusetts, you know. we ain't got no rice here, and you had kids, got bless this one little girl said well, what do you have? and he said he had some cornmeal they could give him and then they had to figure out how to make corn bread and they spent the whole day. take a cup of water. well, what is a cup of water, before, you know, pie rex cups it's a matter of some judgment as to what is actually an actual cup of water, and we had to get some but irso we had to volunteer to churn some more of the birth and we had to do all of this stuff. it's the worst corn bread i ever had, absolutely dreadful and the kids all looked like -- the corn breadcrumbled and it was all over their face and it was the best learning those kids had ever had, i think, i thought. it was the best.
i learned so much just that day so the pleasure of watching the learning take place is the joy of this kind of work still, and, you know, it's -- it's -- it's hard to always recapture that innocence in yourself and to keep subtracting all the things that you think that you know to get back to the core experience of touching the raw experience of life, but the raw experience of life builds itself up into the really important means, and so that's -- that's i think to me this tremendous passion. and i feel it in the streets. sometimes i frustrate my friends because i just start telling stories as i'm walking down the street, and anyway, so it's -- it's a very deep excitement
about that amazing biological phenomenon that we call learning i guess. >> so did you -- it sounds like had you that sort of revelation and that direct experience and then sort of backed into some of the more scholarly knowledge. >> the issue when we're doing an exhibition is we have to reconstruct the process. i mean, i can know a lot of stuff, but, you know, i've got to bring you into this process. i have to really -- so, you know, first thing i have to do is to tell you that you are exactly the person for whom we did this exhibition. i have to make you feel this way, right, that you are the right person. you have all the skills you need and unlike many other learning experiences that you have where you walk in and you say, whoa, this is just not for me because i don't know anything about the haitian revolution, right, or
anything like that. so we want to reinforce your sense of confidence, you know. years ago we did an exhibit in philadelphia on the bicentennial of the cons to usual convention and we did some pre-testing and discovered a lot of people didn't know whether the declaration came of independence came before or after the constitution and we set it up so that poem could remember the right sequence and then you have to create a way to really -- people don't come to museums to get a masters in history. that's -- there are plenty of other good places to get a masters in history right in brooklyn. and they don't come there -- books are great things, right? we all love books. so what museums do is they give you the power to transform a
kind of basic understanding of who you are. when we did the slavery in new york show, a lot of visitors, white visitors came to me and said, you know, i never knew that there were black people in new york before world war i or world war ii, right? the idea that there were africans brought to new amsterdam in 1627 is not in the textbooks i read in fourth grade new york history, so black visitors -- one black woman came to me, very well -- we had this great -- i don't know if any of you were at that show, but we had a -- >> did anybody see that show? >> oh, good, a couple of people, great. so we had a video talk back station at the end. show and we collected 10,000 interviews with visitors, so it was great because we actually could see. so a very lovely well-spoken, well-dressed african-american woman said she was leaving the
show. you know, i've lived here all my life, went to public school here, went to columbia, went to cornell law school can, i work on wall street, and i never thought of myself as anything other than an outsider in this town, and so those are kind of key reconstructions or reorientings of the south, and when you ask people what actually got you interested in history, sometimes they say, well, it was, you know, mrs. pickler in the second grade and sometimes they say i watched, you know, i read all of the laura ingalls wilder books, and some -- many times they say, gosh, i went to gettysburg with my dad and that was just amazing or i -- you know, one woman said to me i went to this amazing education building at old sturbridge village. have you ever been there? and i said, gee, that's great. the power to -- to put people --
because they are physically in that space to make them more vulnerable i think to that really basic orientation of their relationship to the past, and i hope you've been in places. it's easier, of course, than in gallery museums and we try hard in this exhibition. now, one of the great -- great achievements of our generation is to make the --
rickets business? >> i'm so critical of -- of the work. this is a very hard art form that -- that we are involved in, and -- and i went to an exhibition at kings college chapel in cambridge, england, and it was an exhibition on the construction of the -- of the design of the windows in that amazing building. it gives me a good chance now to think back as to why that was such an impressive experience for me 30 years ago. 35 years ago, and part of it was that because of the exhibition i sort of stayed there. i lingered in the space and some group came in there to do their
chorale practice and i got an extra bit of audiovisual help as i was watching that, so one of our goals is just to hold people. let people stop moving and stop, you know, going through the passage of time and hold people in a space that's somewhat unusual and that was a very powerful experience. again, i can't remember a thing about what i was supposed to have learned about stained glass, but it just -- it was a very profound experience, and then it was a sticky experience forever afterwards. i don't know if you know this, but on christmas day on wqxr they play the nine lessons and the choir in that building is -- sings that every year, so every year, of course, when i hear
that music, i -- i -- i'm revisiting and part of what i think is really important in learning is to have experiences that generate a kind of stickiness for you so that you can keep putting things back on to yourself that add to that initial experience and allow you to continue to grow out of that kind of thing, so that's a very interesting -- that particular experience is a very powerful one. of course, you know, that very first day at sturbridge, i mean, i -- i never had a road to damascus experience in religious terms, but that was kind of an amazing day to go into a building and realize all those sermons that i had been reading and taking part and analyzing were delivered orally, right, in
freezing cold spaces where poem just were shivering, so here i was studying the puritanism and all of this highfalutin lang warnings and i'm think these people's teeth are chattering, and he got the family dog in the pew with them to sort of keep them a little bit warm, right, because it's freezing in this building, and i thought, gosh, you know, that changed my whole sense. every time you read hawthorne or melville, you should be thinking about they are sitting there with gloves on their fingers and ink freezing in the inkwell trying to write those books that -- you know, they didn't pull out a pen like this and just scrawl it down or a computer to say the least, so, you know, it's -- those are the things that i think connect us to the past this way, so is that -- >> no, that's good.
that's great. as you were talking, i was thinking about one of my experiences which had to do with going to the dungwang caves in china which are on the silk road to the very far west. a little dyslexia there, and being in those caves actually very early in 1981 before there was any tourist trade there it was a very privileged moment that i was having, but as somebody took us through the caves with a flashlight many of the caves, which are covered for those of you who don't know with these exquisite beautiful, beautiful images of buddhists and the stories of buddha and they are elaborately painted and unbelievably well preserved but what struck me was walking in one of these where the whole cave was covered with black ash
and in the black ash was written by a russian soldier who had fled there during the revolution, basically the equivalent of kilroy was here and whatever geography i had learned in the world all of a sudden my understanding of the relationship between the soviet union and china was forever changed. i completely understood something that i had never understood before and those caves were the ticket for me. >> let me ask can you, when you came out, did you, did you talk to somebody about this, write about this? i'm trying to understand how did you fix the memory of that event? >> i did both. >> i actually talked to the people who were -- many were art
historians so they were filling me of all the others ones and i had this amazing journal and still writing the journal and writing it down helped fix it in my -- >> that's so important, the idea that you externalized your experience in some object or conversation and it turns out i think our ability to recover these things, it's so easy for us today just to keep moving on and on and on and the holocaust museum in washington discovered that much to everybody's horror that the little cards, the identity cards where you were supposed to connect to somebody who had gone through the holocaust had been discarded after our visit all around the national mall because people didn't have something to do with
those things, and so it's really -- it's important to find a way just to register this -- people will remember. one of the great lessons for me as a teacher is people remember what they. do they don't remember what you tell them, right, so -- so that means we should actually let you talk, right? >> so we will do that in one minute, but what i -- i think perhaps the last question i would throw to you is -- and you and i have talked a little bit about the issue of difficulty subject matter, so there are people in the mousse dwrum field who are very proud of the fact that and refer to our places, our exhibits and our spaces in these museums and cultural institutions as safe places, as neutral places. it's something i have some
questions about, that whole notion of neutrality is one that i struggle with. but one of the things that connects to that is this notion that our museums are places where we can tackle difficult subjects, and where there's a role that is not played by a book that you're reading in isolation at home. >> right. >> that you can explore in a more social setting and so i would love to hear your thoughts about that. >> well, when i started, you know, every american mousse dwrum was kind of a cheerleader, center for cheerleading, because, you know, we didn't -- as a national culture in the 1960s we were only beginning to come to grips with some very dark and difficult issues in american history. i can remember, you know, in the kennedy assassination when i was
in college there was a horrible -- there was a debate, you know, what kind of a people are we if we could have an assassination of our president? well, obviously that was just the beginning of a set of understandings, and vietnam was, of course, the real turning point in museum world. our willingness to confront violence and exploitation, there were no exhibits of working class life in america. no buildings and neighborhoods of working class people were being preserved in the united states. there were no exhibitions of slavery or slave trade. ellis island and angel island were in ruins so we have -- we have really come a long way, and it's interesting.
the public has really responded. i think the 9/11 mousse dwrum is jammed. the holocaust museum is jammed. to be honest independence hall and the freedom trail are not jammed, that visitors actually seem to want to engage difficult issues, and difficulty is all around us. when i see, you know, the wood -- i just train myself to see the wood in buildings like this, and i see, you know, how did that get here? what was the work? every time i see a mahogany suspension i think of who actually cut that tree in belize or in san domaing and we live in a world where we can see the difficulty and fortunately i think we're getting more honest. so, you know, for me, this is a great -- this is a field in which we can really open up
conversations about difficult and challenging things because in every dark or difficult history, there is another story. there's a story in the holocaust of people who resisted, of people who -- who found a way to survive and to tell -- to tell their story. every bit of information that we know has come from people who are able to do that, so there is in a sense a doubleness to every one of those subjects, and i, you know, we're going through a very difficult time now in american history. it's forcing historians like me to re-examine, to rethink the narrative, you know, because we had sort of been on this nice notion that the arc of history was tending toward justice and maybe president obama says that
it was two steps forward and one step back. i have another view, but there's a certain sense in which there is a very deep understanding -- recognition that we have to make about the way in which this society has developed over the years, and we have to take responsibility for teaching our children, recognizing that they are -- that they are the legateess not just of thomas jefferson but also of the hemmings family atment cello. i'm now working with the folks at monticello to try to figure out how to tell sally helping's story as well. we are the legatees of the pain as well as promise so i think -- i think it's -- for me as a historian it's what really gives me great pleasure that -- that so many of the people who have
come into this field have kind of a brave, courageous. this is an exhibit here of a very difficult time in brooklyn. we know about the draft riots in manhattan. well, there are draft riots right over here. >> tobaccos. >> and the liggett tobacco company which some of you may remember which was on television. anyway, so i think it's -- it's a subject that i think really gives me some interest and some encouragement i think. >> great. thank you. so let's -- let's turn it over to you for a few minutes. meredith has a microphone, and we would love some questions. not a shy audience, good. >> yes. i would like to know have you run into any problems with putting up exhibits where people
say no you can't do that? you can't say that? we wouldn't allow you to do that or exhibit that, and if so, what was your response? >> well, i've had very little of that experience. i mean, you know, there are legendary examples in the museum feel, especially the enola gay exhibition. most of the american historical agencies like the brooklyn historical society are legally or officially they are not nonprofit organizations, and, you know, although i'm a -- i'm an advocate of government in many, many ways, and many ways i'm glad that the government doesn't own this institution because i've always been able to go to trustees meetings and staff meetings and say, you know, this is really what the history says. you know, it's not -- and so in -- you know, i think the
smithsonian is vulnerable, but, you know, linda and i were in australia three years ago, and that's really a case where the conservative government came into power in 2011 and stripped out the national museum in canberra and took the out the entire exhibition and they began with the museum by telling the story of the aboriginal peoples. to the right wing government that was not a subject that they wanted to have at the core of their museum. so to the cost of 10 million, $20 million they stripped out that whole thing. we haven't had that experience here in part because we have for the most part -- i think it's strange to say. for the most part we've had private nonprofit organizations, and i don't know, i mean, i've worked all over the united states. i've dealt with -- with really
tough subjects, and it's -- i just haven't run into it. i know that there are cases. the enola gay was a particularly difficult up. it was the 50th anniversary of the end of world war ii, and the museum decided that in addition to a museum exhibit about the dropping -- about the dropping of the bomb, they would get into the whole question about whether or not it was wise, what the damage done in hiroshima and nagasaki was, and it just -- you know, they were -- there was a group of people, air force association that was just sitting and waiting for this to be broached, and they just let -- you know, they just brought out all the guns, so to speak, and nothing the museum had done could have -- but i think, you know, the 50th anniversary of the end of world
war ii probably was a moment to say thank you to the troops that were dhsh was the last reunion in a sense of a large number of people. it was not the best time to rates most difficult and painful issues, so i think the ambivalence of people who suddenly thought, well, they are calling me, you know, a murderer because we dropped an atomic bomb, and it was just the disconnect between that and the celebration of the 50th anniversary was very touchy and very difficult, but, you know, that's really in many ways an unusual case. now, who knows what will happen to the national museum of american history this year. it's -- you know, we don't know. turned into another hotel, i don't know. >> i think that, you know, there certainly have been moments where this -- where there have
been serious questions and situations where museums have made the decision to withdraw shows because of controversies. the corcoran gallery with the mapplethorpe show. again, it was about a group of politicians who were sort of waiting to pounce right here in brooklyn. we all know the story or many of us know the story of the brooklyn museum and the sensation exhibition which was, you know, a direct clash of a group of of sort of fanatical catholics and the mayor sort of joining forces in a moment to say that this exhibition, this art exhibition was entirely inappropriate and disgraceful and should come down, and the mayor decided he was going to try to withdraw the funds -- the city's funds from the museum. he lost that case.
>> that's right. >> and the museum had greater attendance that it had ever had before, but there was a great price paid in the process. having answered much hate mail myself while i was there, i can testify to that, but i think one of the issues that will come up for people and periodically and certainly perhaps in the next few years is the issue of self-censorship. you know, when is it the moment to pull back to be a little softer or a little more subtle in what might be our interpretive work? and i think that's something that i think about a great deal is how to make sure that the bravery that richard refers to in the field remains, and i think that's going to be about all of yourself. it's going to be about our
audiences understanding that putting together some of these stories, some of these histories that are difficult takes a lot of complicated thinking that you don't always get it exactly right and, therefore, you can can be vulnerable to criticism. so this is probably the moment in the program to also just let all of you know that one of the possibilities that just rows entally had been put forward in the last week is that the national endowment for the humanities and the national endowment for the arts be de-funded. those are two of the very significant federal funding sources for museum work, and we don't know that that's going to happen, but it has been put forward as a recommendation for our new president to look at. so, you know, these are all things, you know, we'll be dealing with as a field and that the importance of our wanting to
tell stories that are significant, that help people understand where we're coming from becomes more and more important as the days go by. >> first of all, i think it's very easy to define neutrality. if you agree with me, you're neutral. i'm a second semester grad student at the history department of brooklyn college, and i can't help but observe how younger generation, several younger sen jayses to me now, are becoming more and more two-dimensional where all their information is coming from a screen in front of them and they are selecting what they want to see on that screen and just not being exposed to other things. i heard very clearly what you were saying about bringing
tactile information to round out, but my question is in the world as we have it today and including the reality now that facts -- the notion of facts itself is being questioned, how you get -- how do you bring more and more people into museums and other places where they can have the tactile experience and maybe get them away from the two-dimensional screen. >> you want to try? >> want me to? >> yeah. >> one of the hinges that i observe very frequently at this institution and frankly when i if to other museums is how much people enjoy the social time that they have in our museums. museums are actually incredibly
god at pulling people away from those screens and putting them into a context where it's not just a place to learn but to be with your friends, to catch up with people, to have a little bit to eat, something to drink, to enjoy a very different context than, you know, the one you're describing, and and that doesn't seem to me that it's really letting up at all, and we are very heartened to see people come here. not just to join our programs and exhibitions but we also do free friday nights once a money, and the idea of it is to be very playful within the confines of this institution and to surprise
people with what they might learn and enjoy in this context, and i think that that feel very positive to me and feels as if it's only getting stronger only because they know. >> and i think, you know, the trick of our business is to create a thread that will link a set of disparate experiences, so a lot of these kinds of programs are very much related to age -- different developmental stages for children but also that people in their 20s and 30s have a very different sense of how to construct the arc of an experience and so the conventional ones that we have worked become don't necessarily aplay. . >> people come to spend good
time with friends and they don't come necessarily the way the curators uses to tell them in order to learn exactly what the particularities of the field, are so i think figuring out how to turn the visit no a youth years experience and trying to -- you know, i've been thinking a lot about the new african-american museum of in washington which is very crowded and very hard to sort ever digest in the units that poem real very physically, you know. one of our mottos is it's never too early to sit down, and so trying to design the museum experience sounds trivial, by think trying to design the experience so that it does, you
know, the food in the museums have gotten a lot better, but thinking -- rewarding people and that engagement and how you can make that work. you're still going to have teenagers who are just swirly or they are on their smartphones. you know, we are the exvent of that, i spent, i think we can always exaggerate. every new medium introduced is accused of being corrupting teenagers. i found an article that said the sunday newspaper in 1815 was corrupting young people. >> nice. >> because it was keeping them away from church. now for us the sunday paper is like the most serious moment, so since guttenberg there's been a
and media change and actually this institutional path. >> i -- were people started to take photographs with theires phones, it wasn't all that long ago, the museums were just beside themselves. this was frantic. it was not allow all. it was dangerous. it would send our copyright income to hel because nobody would need any pictures anymore. buy our pictures from us, a and it works you know, disrupt everybody's appearance and so the museum now pretty much everywhere you go people understand that that's one of the years, you know, source of motorcyclely. i'll take these home with me and they will have a longer life and
it already part of my story and i'll share it with other people. >> last may i went on a student tour of -- called tracing the holocaust starting in munich and then going to ukraine and then up through poe lan. we went with a group of south carolina college students which was great because if i had gone with serious holocaust scholars i would have had a miserable time. but these kids, you know, they knew the story. they had all taken courses in the holocaust history, and they were very serious, but at the end of the afternoon after a full day of pretty dark stuff, they would go shopping, and it was interesting to me, but at the end of the thing they were asked to write an essay and their writing wasn't terrific, but their photographic record of their experience was astonishing to me. they -- they just have a
different facility, and they were able to put together a kind of record of their time which was so expressive of the anxieties they felt, of the detail they were confronting. it was really -- and i just thought, you know, this was a lesson, that they were teaching me things that i didn't know -- i don't take those kinds of good pictures. i don't know how to do that quite as well and so i think, you know, the culture is evolving, and it's -- it was a very interesting lesson for me. >> i think one more question. >> hi. thanks a lot for your talk. i thought it was really interesting and i love the way you discuss the objects because i think of history more in terms of geography and sociopolitical structures. i was curious going off about what you said of getting people
engaged in the mouseiums and history museums. do you do think people often have so much trouble connecting with history and feel so removed from it and feel so sort of uninterested in the past, in our own past and other people's pasts? what is it that prevents people from feeling the sort of drive, that you know, history enthusiasts, you know, share? >> you know, the question is why don't we have more -- why are people not enthusiastic? i remember going once to -- to work at a place called st. mary's city on the western shore of the chesapeake in the very southern part of maryland, and this was the colonial capital of maryland before the capital moved to annapolis in the 1690s and the place had been -- it was just a mess and they had tried to restore it at various times but the only thing
they lacked was a rockefeller which the virginians had so they got williamsburg so these guys got a mess. so i said to this group of very sour can, depressed museum people. i said, you know, do you understand, i said, that colonial history is the second leading genre of film in the united states? and they said no, and they said -- and it's the third leading genre of books in our book stores and they said no. you're crazy. why do we get this guy here? let's send him back to brooklyn, and i said, well, if i told you the story of some people who came to a remote land and met a strange group of people and created -- had toe plant a new
culture and had to do the kind of biological engineering to survive in that new land and to maintain their -- their cultures and they had to construct new political structures and all of these kinds of things, you know, so what is that? that's called science fiction, and what is colonial history? it's science fiction and we tell it in the worst possible way, right? we talk about the reformation and the protestants and catholics and we get into the weeds and we miss the drama of that confrontation with alien cultures and alien environments, right? if we taught colonial history the way we tell science fiction and, of course, this is not a historical accident because the very first piece of science fiction i think it's fair to say is thomas moore's utopia written
in 1516 sort of in the wake of columbus about the creating of a new ideal civilization so science fiction and colonial history actually are kind of joined together at the hip. so a lot of it is -- has to do with the fact that we don't -- we don't get these stories, especially in schools. a big change occurred in the '80s in my work when -- well, i'll tell you a story. i was working at the tenement museum, and we had decided that we were going to have one apartment for german-american immigrants, one apartment for irish-immigrant americans and one for par the eastern the american jews and one for the chinese and one for the italians and so on and everyone would get one apartment, and we would have a typical story of each of those different groups, and we would hire these smart historians to
come in and -- and invent these composite narratives for us. so the irish group came in and says we've got a great story. a catholic girl from cork maris a protestant man from belfast and they are in new york. he's a longshoreman on the docks, a crate falls on his shoulder, smashes him up and he couldn't work anymore and can only do odd jobs. they have three kids. the oldest one starts out at a cap and he gets into politics and becomes a contractor and the middle child maris outside the irish community and the youngest boy is given over to demon drink, you know, the rum, and -- and -- and, you know, he talked about the politics of this community and the democratic party and all this kind of stuff. that sounded really good. two weeks later the german-american scholars came in and they said we've got a great
story. we've got this protestant man from branden burling and maris a catholic girl from the reinland, they come to new york and he's in the furniture business and loses three fingers on his right and and can't work anymore and the oldest boy is a big shot in the shooting society and all that stuff and the middle girl maris somebody not german and the youngest son goes to milwaukee, and we thought, oh, crap, this is awful. this is going to sound like the same drivel in each of these cases, and just at that the moment, and if you've been to the tenement museum you know that we got this call from al genealogist, right. oh, we historians, we don't have any faith in genealogists but this woman found this petition in the surrogate court in lower manhattan that said natalie gumpert is petitioning to have her husband julius declared legally dead because he left,
the louse, he ran away from home nine years earlier and she's received a letter from germany saying that he's inherited $600 now and now she needs to get him declared dead so she can get the $600. it's not a story that people felt exactly, you know -- we never would have invented such a grady story, especially a jewish man should leave his wife like that, couldn't happen, so -- but -- so from that point on the tenement museum was built out of real stories, real people stories and it change the way we work because, you know, this exhibit is not about typical people. it's about real people in brooklyn, and there was a real turn away from the idea of composite inventive characters and towards the idea that each of us has a story which is completely implausible in some way, right, and that's the pleasure of history and people
have an easier time identifying with your wacky story than they do with some invented composite stories, so to me that's the -- that's the ticket, right, is to get those particular stories and really, you know, run with them because there's -- there's a bottomless quality to our fascination with other lives. >> excellent. thank you, richard. thank you [ applause ] it's my great pleasure to have this time to talk with you and to their it with all of you. i highly recommend richard's book. he will stay here for a bit and sign books. >> until the movie comes out. >> the "star wars" movie, right? thank you all so much for coming tonight, and i hope to see you